What is a Web Series?

My goal with this post is to create a compelling argument for a valid definition of a web series…

read on.

As a member of the IAWTV (International Academy of Web TV), and as an artist spawned from the beastly new media womb in general, there has been a lot of discussion over what constitutes a “Web Series”.

Since we’re all cowboys in the digital Wild West we have the ability to design how the future will view new media projects. Many want to set parameters which, in a way, rob us of the spirit of possibilities the web promises; yet they’re simultaneously necessary when trying to monetize this budding industry.

Lets address some of these parameters…

  • Series length
  • Episode length
  • Studio vs Independent
  • Original Distribution Platform
  • Format

SERIES LENGTH

Its important to define the word “series” here.

se-ries

noun

“a number of related things arranged or occurring in succession.”

By definition a series is as many as “infinite” and as few as “two.” Some may object that a series could consist of as few episodes as two but unless we have a good reason to define another number I don’t see why we should set a boundary.

It was suggested at one point to define 6 episodes as the minimum to warrant a “created by” credit. I argue that this is arbitrary and unfair. What if a show had 5 twenty minute episodes- does that mean no one deserves the “created by” credit? So why not make 5 episodes the minimum? Then again, what makes 5 so much more valid than 4? Admittedly, it gets increasingly more ludicrous as we descend but again, why not 3…?

Which brings me back to the very definition of a series being at least 2 episodes long. I really don’t think we should redefine this area unless we have a compelling reason to do so.

EPISODE LENGTH

TV episodes are mandated due to advertising and range from either 22-30 minutes or 44-60 minutes depending on the advertising needs of the network or cable station.

The web has no restriction because there’s no reason to constrict what is possible at this point. A few years ago some important suit-wearing executive at some important company decided that attentions spans of laptop viewers should be around 3-5 minutes per episode.

Over time this has increased as its proven that people are willing to watch features on their phone; literally, 2 years ago an agent at UTA laughed at that ever being a possibility.

When we distributed The Bannen Way on Sony’s Crackle site, they were mandated to keep the episodes under 7 minutes because they would have to insert a commercial otherwise. I don’t believe there was any minimum but we aimed to keep them between 5-7 minutes.

The Independents don’t have to answer to advertisers, so if it makes sense creatively for their story-lines to be 45 minutes in length, who’s to prevent them from trying it out. Which brings me to…

STUDIO vs INDEPENDENT

We got some heat for Bannen because it was a “studio” project. As this was my foray into directing I didn’t see myself as part of the “Big Bad Monster” that many envisioned Sony as for trying to swoop in and dominate the web.

I think there will always be a place for Independent projects on the web, by the sheer nature that anyone can post something on the web and be their own distributor; but I don’t think we should refuse the potential for creating an industry out of this medium. We need money to do that. Whether that capital comes from a studio- or investors- or your little sister’s piggy bank [dick] makes no difference.

All revenue models should be welcomed. Even if an official web format surfaces due to advertising money that still doesn’t hinder you from picking up your camera and throwing a video of you getting kicked in the nuts on the web- unlike TV and Film where you have no access unless you have a ticket into the party.

ORIGINAL DISTRIBUTION PLATFORM

Sometimes web series originate on the web and later that same material is repurposed as a feature or as episodes of a TV series…

And sometimes its the other way around. The hot scam right now is arbitrarily cutting up features and throwing them into bite size chunks to be consumed on the web.

I’ve heard objections in both direction from purists who want to keep web projects within “web jurisdiction”. But whether you like it or not- how can you say a feature film that is cut up into a web series isn’t a web series. It may piss you off but it is what it is.

When creating The Bannen Way, since there was no limit to the number of episodes allowed on the web, we decided to structure our series as a feature, in hopes we could justify getting a larger production budget since we could potentially sell the project on DVD.  It worked- Sony was willing to take a risk on what has now become a standard new media model.

Would I classify our project as a web series- or a feature…?

The answer is both. We shot and edited it as a feature first (for obvious budgetary reasons) but we distributed it as a Web series first. Since it premiered on the web I think it clearly classifies it as a Web series whether or not it eventually became a feature film.

How could a web series retroactively be disqualified as a web series because it was later distributed in other ways?

FORMAT

There are many types of entities that exist on the web. The Streamy Awards recognize live-action, documentary, hosted, animated, etc. But why not dating, shopping, or photo sites…?

There are two obvious answers: there’s no “narrative” or “video” quality to these entities. We could argue semantics further by pointing out the video elements to shopping sites or dispute how narrative a hosted news show is.

When we break it down Format seems like a gray area. To further prove this point, I’d like to offer another sacrifice for the alter…  “gaming

True, there’s no way playing Solitaire or Words with Friends should be considered a web series- lacking narrative and video, among other, obvious qualities. But then again… what about “video gaming”? There’s definitely a narrative story inherent in any single player campaign these days- arguably more intricate and nuanced than many Hollywood movies. So why disqualify online Video Games from being a web series?

Right- because of that word- “Series”. Lets assume we’re not satisfied with World of Warcraft 2 suddenly becoming a web series because two related things are strung together. But what if someone created a narrative video game where you could play through a storyline, online, in 3-5 minute increments…? And what if tomorrow there would be another “episode” that you could play through? Does that not qualify as a web series…? Why not…? Because its too interactive?

In order to settle this ongoing debate I think we need to first establish the guideposts- the unchanging structure that everyone can agree on- and build from there.

For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume everyone is okay with two components…

  • Web
  • Series

WEB

The term “Web” potentially refers to two things.

  • How content is consumed
  • Where the content originated

Content Consumption: If you’re watching a video on your computer, iPad, or mobile phone and you’re connected to the web there’s a god chance its a web series… but not necessarily. You can download a feature on the web and watch it on your iPad. You can also watch “web content” on your television these days.

So I’m going to have to disqualify this definition, and move on to…

Origination of Content: If you’re watching a series that originated on the web there’s a good chance its a web series. I don’t see any way to dispute this. Even if the same material becomes a feature film, if it was broken up into episodes on the web first its definitely a web series.

SERIES

I already defined series as “a number of related things arranged or occurring in succession.”

This, to me, means 2 or more. Period.

With everything considered…

And until we have a compelling reason to think otherwise…

In the spirit of creating a fair classification of a web series, I propose this simple definition…

“A Web Series is… 2 or more related episodes of video content that originate on the web.”

~ JW

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